In your Life Group you may run across a situation where you know that intervention is important. It's clear that either a legitimate boundary has been crossed, harmful choices being made, or a major moral boundary is being broken and it's no longer a "private matter" (you know about it at least).
Let's face it, it's a lot easier to just avoid confronting someone, even when you're pretty sure it would be the right thing to do. If you've ever confronted someone in the past you know that it is not always welcomed. In fact many times, regardless of your approach, there is a strong defensiveness or even denial. It may even permanently break your relationship on their end.
But despite the risks, sometimes we must act. Here are some pointers to help.
What to do while you decide whether to confront someone...
Let's assume you have become aware of something serious that clearly is wrong or hurtful. It's not a little thing. But you're still figuring out what to say or whether to say anything. Here are some things to do, or NOT do, while you're considering whether to confront someone:
- Don't gossip! Our first instinct is to chat with a bunch of people about it. Or maybe we get them to "pray about it"--which can just be Christainese for gossip. Instead, talk to God about it, honestly and in detail in private. Pray for wisdom, and as Galatians says, "look to yourselves, lest you too be tempted." In other words, without God's help and humility we may become part of the problem, not the cure. Then go talk to that person privately.
Matthew 18:15-16 says, "If your brother sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along..."
- Don't ask "the church leader" to do the confronting for you. Sometimes people want to immediately run to a pastor or staff member to come roaring in like Rambo and confront someone when they are the ones who are privy to the situation and the pastor is not. The Golden Rule applies here: "do unto others as you would have them do to you." If roles were reversed, wouldn't you rather the person talk to you first, and not get a call from the pastor out of the blue?
You can always elevate things later, but first, go privately. "Privately" could include your spouse if they too share direct knowledge of the problem. Abuse, immanent harm, or illegal activity are exceptions, of course. Notify the proper authorities.
- Do seek godly counsel if need be, but protect the person's identity. You may determine to "go privately" but need godly advice first. Perhaps you're not even sure you need to confront them, and you'd like wise input on that point. Seek out a pastor, staff person, or other mature believer who probably would not know so much about your situation that they could easily guess who it is. Leave names out. That person may live in another city. Be very careful if you email someone for advice! Emails have a way of getting passed around. A phone call may be much better. Remember, this only applies to situations where you have NOT ALREADY confronted the person privately as a first step. If you did confront them, and they rejected it, then you should involve others who can help.
- Should I tell my spouse and get their counsel? There are times that telling a spouse would be a breach of confidence, or just old fashioned gossip, the same as with anyone else. Your motive is restoration and to guard a person's dignity as much as possible in the meantime. Again, the Golden Rule helps: if roles were reversed, would you want them talking to you directly, or venting to their spouse. If someone offended you and it's just between you two, deal privately. If they slipped up (e.g., got angry in traffic on the way to a ball game and made a "gesture" but only you saw it) deal with them privately. You get the point. If you need godly counsel before confronting, a spouse probably can guess who it is you're talking about...or they just may become suspicious of ALL of your friends!
What Do I Say When I Confront?
There are three types of situations to consider:
A lot of situations may be matters of foolishness versus wisdom. Andy Stanley in his "Best Question Ever" book points out that there are a lot of areas where the Bible doesn't directly address an issue. It doesn't say, "Thou shalt not mortgage thy home and empty the kids college fund to go into business with a man you only met last week in a venture you know little about." Many people ask, "Is there anything wrong with this?" But that's the wrong question. They should ask, "What is the wise thing for me to do, in light of my past experience, my present circumstances, and my future hopes and dreams?" Sometimes just helping someone work through this can be the level of confrontation needed. It could be like I experienced with a friend years ago. This highly intelligent man had found a "miracle investment" through an Ohio based insurance company. He had already given them $50,000 and the first month got a $5,000 profit check back in the mail for just that month. Another $7,000 check was on the way. He shared with some of us in group how he was liquidating all his savings and annuity and going to put $150,000 in to triple his returns. I faintly asked, "Are you sure this isn't one of those ponzi schemes?" This was years before Bernie Madoff, but I had seen something once on TV and it rang a bell. But I was barely aware of such things at the time. And he said he had letters from various business organizations, articles, etc. showing how legit they were and had "checked it out." About three months later I asked how it was going. Sheepishly, he told me how it was all a scam. His money was gone and the FBI had closed them down. I wish I had pressed further. I wish I had prayed more about it, maybe gotten some knowledge on, then met with him again, even at the risk of being annoying.
Other situations are dangerous morally. For example, a married person in your group strikes up a private friendship with a person of the opposite sex who isn't their spouse. It could even be someone in your group! Their non-verbal clues give off bad vibes. Intervention is definitely called for. Danger is immanent. The private, direct approach is best. (Of course, it may be that two or three of you already have direct knowledge of this, so maybe it's best if at least two of you go privately the first time.) The approach should be something along these lines: "Jim, Tom and I are concerned. It seems that you have developed a private friendship with Samantha that your wife is not a part of." [Response: Oh, it's innocent] . "How do you think your wife feels about this? [She doesn't mind.] "Have you talked to her about it and asked her?" [Not really.] Listen. "Where do you think this friendship is heading?" [Nowhere.] Listen. "Are you aware of how it looks to people?" [No.] "It looks like it's headed to something more than just friendship. We're concerned for you. Enough to risk coming to talk with you about it."
In this situation you are trying to hold up a mirror to their choice. They don't yet see it as having crossed a line. Maybe technically it hasn't. Often there are other causes at play, like problems in the marriage which you should seek to get them help with. Confrontation is the door to help, not just dumping or "fire and forget."
Some situations are clear moral violations already. As James says, "We all stumble in many ways." Not everything needs confrontation. Some things we pass over graciously because they are not that serious or that harmful. Other issues people may readily confess to the group for prayer and help. Someone may share about an anger problem, or lust problem, or worry problem, or debt problem.
But when a serious or harmful moral problem arises you need to confront it both for the sake of that person, and, if it's known to the Group, for the Group's sake too. Imagine if most of the group know a certain member is having an affair, but it's like the elephant in the room no one talks about. That will harm the group! You would handle it similarly to the section above, but even more directly: "Jim, Tom and I are here because it's become common knowledge that you are having an affair. [Response: "You don't understand." Often they give excuses and blame the spouse at this point. Listen.] "Jim, it's affecting the whole group. It's clearly wrong in God's eyes." [listen] "It's hurting your wife/kids. We're here to urge you to break it off and get help to put your marriage and family back together. We want to stand with you in that process." [listen]
If Jim is repentant or says he's broken it off then you switch to ways to help and to keep him accountable through the difficult healing process. If he isn't repentant, then the conversation might continue like this, "Jim, if that's your decision then we are simply going to have to ask you to stop coming to the group. It destroys any fellowship we have because all anyone can think of is the hurt you are putting your wife and kids through. It breaks God's heart too. I hope you'll change your mind and heart on this. We are praying for that." You want to conclude graciously, with the door of repentance and healing open--but firm and confident too in the moral issue and the protection of the Group. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
is a key passage regarding this step.
What if they don't listen to me?
OK, you followed Matthew 18:15-16 and went to them privately. But they didn't listen or receive your confrontation. Now what?
In some cases you don't really need to take it any further.
Maybe after you talk to them privately they pull up stakes and get out of Dodge. They leave your Group, they leave the church and you may never see them again. How can this be? Because a few people have played this same scene out over, and over in many churches. And they had just happened to land in your Life Group. This is usually someone whose whole life is characterized by foolish choices. They are church hoppers. There is not much you can do.
Or, in some cases it was a personal offense against you alone. And you decide to "turn the other cheek" rather than involve others. When should you not just "turn the other cheek?" When that person would likely hurt others the same way. Then you should "take two or three others" with you and re-confront. If they are in leadership, their immediate supervisor should be involved.
In many cases you want to now involve "two or three others" and confront them a second time (Matthew 18:16).
Who should those people be? It depends. The appropriate church staff member probably should be involved at this point. That is not "telling it to the whole church" but involving people who need to know. Jesus certainly envisioned an "elder" would have been among that group of two or three. And a church staff supervisor or lay director functions in that way often. The principle is to involve those who need to know, or have direct responsibility if a second confrontation is required.
What if they don't listen to the "two or three others"?
If they reject the confrontation of a second time Jesus counsels one further elevation of the rebuke: "If he pays no attention to them, tell it to the church" (Matt. 18:17). Churches in New Testament times were very, very small. They didn't have multiple worship services and a thousand people or more. Everyone lived in the same town, and most probably saw each other often in daily life. In New Testament times they had no conception of a mega-church where many people, maybe even most people, had never met all the other members. Because of that, most churches today wisely apply this step to only that segment of the "church" that would know that person or have regular dealings with them.
That might be the entire Life Group in some cases. Often it's better to put out a short word to everyone with the relevant facts than to let rumors fly. That's because sometimes people have tried to enlist allies, on both sides of an issue. And they may not know that you have tried to really help. The unrepentant person often spins it as, "They just judged me!" despite how kind, humble, and loving you really were. If you do need to address the entire Group, be careful to do this in a discreet way (dismiss visitors). For example, "As most of you know we've been trying to work with Brian and Susie. But despite out best efforts, going privately, counseling them and much prayer, and even having some church staff try to help, Brian has decided to go on a path that simply is not in keeping with God's word. We regret this, but he is unrepentant in it and won't be coming back to Group. We pray and hold out hope... Meanwhile we want to rally around Susie and the kids." This is a tough speech to give, but it's far better than letting rumors tear apart a group.
Also, there is a moral duty at some point to let the Group know that blatant wrong was properly addressed (1 Timothy 5:20).
Some mistakes I have seen in "telling it to the church"
Not giving enough detail for people to accurately understand the nature of a matter. In a desire to be too discrete it can backfire. If you do have to go to the whole group, don't give the wrong impression. If someone abandoned their spouse for a "younger model" you don't say, "Brian was tired" or even "Brian made some mistakes." No, he is making mistakes, present. That's the problem. He is unrepentant. And it's not innocent mistakes. It's ones that harm others and are clearly wrong. You don't have to give a group the gory details, but give them a clear picture. The example in the previous section will do.
I once was at a church where at a staff meeting we were told our church counselor, a well-known counselor in the area and who had an office at church, had had "an indiscretion" and was going to step down. We were handed a copy of a letter he had written to read at Sunday night church. It said in effect, "I'm tired. I'm stepping down. I am taking a one year break, getting some training before I return to the counseling practice." We were asked did it sound OK. Not knowing anything more and trusting the leadership we nodded silent approval. When a staff member asked about the details he was met with, "Well, we don't need to get into that since he's stepping down." It could have been anything (fist fight with a client during a session? Whatever?).
A month later they called a special meeting of the staff. We were being sued by a client. Now that facts were given to us: this man over many months had committed the sickest types of sexual abuse with several clients under the guise of "therapy," right in his office at church! He was obviously deeply emotionally disturbed and a sexual predator. The woman from another church threatened the suit because this man was continuing to practice on his own. Some of our staff were still making referrals to him. She wanted to protect others, and rightly so! The suit was dropped but now we had the very awkward job of notifying people who had a "need to know" and warning others as we came across them. One of his board members was on staff at our church and even she had no idea. She hadn't been at the "facts" meeting. Two years later she complained to me, "Why does the pastor hate ______ so much? When will he forgive him and start sending clients?" I replied, something like, "Well, given the nature of what _____ did I can understand." She said, "What do you mean?" I mentioned one lesser details, which I assumed she now knew. Her jaw dropped. She had been lied to! This man was still spinning it to her as a minor "indiscretion" that was over and done. This is an extreme example, but it was a life lesson for me: give enough detail so people get a clear picture. And those who need-to-know, like decision makers, need more details.
Telling too many people This mistake we've alluded to, telling a matter that only affects a group within the church to the entire church. In the Life Group example we covered that. If a matter is among people with a low profile in the church, it really doesn't need to ever go any further than the immediate Group, unless there is danger of further harm to others.